What is dark social, really?

To begin with, it’s not related to the Dark Web, which involves sinister transactions your mother would never approve of.

And it’s not the Dark Side, which is what Darth Vader uses to fling rebel scum against the ceilings of star cruisers like he was tossing out an old sandwich.

However, as it allegedly comprises more than 80% of all outbound sharing, according to a 2016 report from digital advertising company RadiumOne, it is, as everyone’s favorite Sith lord might say, “impressive — most impressive.”

Learning to wield this force? Well, that’s another story.

Dark social, in a nutshell, is any online traffic that is deemed untraceable by web analytics systems. Senior editor Alexis Madrigal devised the term in a 2012 issue of The Atlantic, shedding light on privately shared content that is not attributed to a source and accompanied by no referral data whatsoever.

It’s intriguing to consider just how many times Madrigal’s game-changing article has been shared via dark social since then. Every time its URL was copied and pasted into the body of an email, or disseminated by way of Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, or read on a monitor over the shoulder of a coworker, it undoubtedly threw The Atlantic’s analytics out of whack.

Shares like these, as well as those spread via Native Mobile Aps like Snapchat, do not pass along referral codes — or UTMs — as they would if they were Tweeted or shared publicly on Facebook.

The result? Long, convoluted URLs that continuously find a home in your web analytics system’s “direct” folder, potentially skewing your perception of how many people deliberately typed your domain name into their browser. (And definitely not giving you a clear view of your marketing efforts.)

But as is consistently seen in digital marketing, nothing stays the same for long.

Upwardly Mobile Marketing

Mobile devices are dominating the market and becoming more influential every year. But when it comes to the propagation of dark social, the numbers are simply staggering.

According to the RadiumOne report, mobile devices constitute approximately 62% of dark social shares, compared to 38% generated from desktop units. What’s more, RadiumOne’s findings pegged public social marketing spending at more than $90 million, when statistics clearly showed that 84% of sharing is occurring outside of these networks.

The message is clear: The marketing potential of dark social is virtually limitless, and finding a way to track engagement is becoming more important than ever.

Don’t Curse the Darkness

It can be frustrating to think that we’re getting a woefully incomplete view of our traffic flow, which dampers the optimization of our website and social media strategies.

And it is daunting to consider that harnessing the potential of dark social, in many ways, is akin to taming the Wild, Wild West.

But this dark cloud has a big silver lining: People are sharing your content one-on-one with others with whom they have a trusted, personal relationship. That means engaged readers. That means increased clickbacks. That means it is working.

So keep it working.

Make sharing buttons a priority for your sites, and position them where they are easy to find. Shorten the URLs of your outbound links, which provides a more intimate look at engagement rates and — because they save precious characters on platforms like Twitter — are simply shared more often.

Many pros also urge setting up an Advanced Segment in Google Analytics, filtering for visitors who arrived to your site through direct traffic, but not through your homepage. Additionally, apps such as Get.Social.io allow users to add a snippet of code to their HTMLs, facilitating address bar tracking.

With each evolutionary leap, tracking dark social becomes more feasible, less frightening and ultimately better for your business.

After All, Print Isn’t Dead

Keep in mind that dark social isn’t the only fount of hidden return on investment. Consider every piece of printed collateral and promotional material that you’ve ever sent out into the world — every business card or flier or ballpoint pen bearing your website address.

These are all sources that influence direct traffic when visitors manually enter your site’s URL into their search bars. These are all sources of traffic, sans referral information, that go unrecorded. And these are all sources of traffic that still work on our behalf as they circulate throughout offices and waiting rooms and chambers of commerce.

Dark social isn’t exactly a business card, but its name is now well-known. It was with us long before Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic piece, and will be with us long after this article sees the light of day. What’s more, it should ultimately prove to be a boon to marketing professionals. It may still be a blind spot, in some ways, but it’s a blind spot that, with the proper attention, will continue to open a lot of eyes — and doors.

Nathan Oravec and Erin McMahon are with Impact Marketing & Public Relations. They can be reached at 410-312-0081.